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Gantz's Party May Not Make It to the Ballot Box Intact

At the moment, the main assets of Benny Gantz's party are its significant funding and a bit of kindly sympathy for its battered leader

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Like frozen yogurt stands in the 1990s, new political parties are popping up day by day in wholesale quantities. Some of them are significant, some of them are negligible and others are downright ridiculous. It is not reasonable that Central Elections Committee director Orly Adas will have to hire carpenters to increase the size of the trays of voting slips with the names of parties on them at the polling places.

After this fresh green budding of parties there will come a sudden autumn of unifications and resignations, which we will be seeing right up until the finalization of the slates on February 4. In any case this phenomenon, like the deluge of public opinion polls conducted after every move, does not reflect the reality that will be revealed once the election is over. We know the dynamic of the final days, sometimes even the final hours, of election cycles.

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The movements of voters from one party to another are indicative of relative uncertainty, nearly all across the field. In effect, the steadiest movement expected is that of Likud – upwards. These past few weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gained one to two Knesset seats on average. In the polls that he has been conducting, Likud has already gone beyond the 30 seats he will need to become the next prime minister with any certainty. It is probable that this will also be the final outcome. It is not impossible that we will see a rerun here of the 2013 election: Likud (at that time with Yisrael Beiteinu, this time without) as the only party that brings in more than enough votes for 30 seats in the legislature, with all the rest in the teens or single digits.

In that election Netanyahu had ensured his victory, in advance but discovered on the day after the “brotherhood” between Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. The intoxication of victory on election night became a hangover and an awful headache that lasted until he disbanded his government, a year and a half later.

This time, sailing like a giant over the land of supposedly Lilliputian Knesset seats, the picture is entirely different. The leader of the largest party, on paper, simply does not have a coalition. For the first time, facing off against him are two strong rivals from the right. One of them, former Likud lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar, who has just founded the New Hope party, is skilled and experienced in forming coalitions, has deep ties with the ultra -Orthodox and has as his right-hand man – in every sense – Zeev Elkin, until just recently a member of Likud and the cabinet, whose résumé also includes hundreds of hours of coalition talks on Netanyahu’s behalf.

A meeting of the then right-wing bloc at the Knesset, Jerusalem, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) commentator Yaakov Rivlin has reported in the weekly Ba’kehila that the leitmotif of Netanyahu’s three meetings this past week with the heads of the Haredi parties in the Knesset was his concern about “Elkin’s phenomenal skill in the craft of putting together coalitions that hang by a thread on a single vote.” This basic change is the best immunity against the real danger of a fifth election within about two years.

At his family’s command, Netanyahu dismantled his notorious “bloc” by expelling Yamina lawmakers Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Bezalel Smotrich to the opposition. The lawmakers who vowed fealty then to Netanyahu now stand at 42 to 45 Knesset seats in the public opinion polls. Yamina is an open question. Still in the negotiations regarding Bennett and Shaked, Smotrich is taking care to say that given a choice between a right-wing government under Netanyahu and a government under Bennett but with Lapid – he will prefer the former. Just like in the Joint List, there too the whole thing could blow up; and just like in the Joint List, there too Netanyahu’s hands will be (or more likely, already are) deep in skullduggery.

Smotrich on the one hand is prepared to give Netanyahu all the “French laws” (which would make it impossible to try a sitting prime minister) in the world and he isn’t bothering to market with any enthusiasm the leader of his list’s candidacy for prime minister. On the other hand, he is demanding an unreasonable price for the partnership between his own faction and Bennett’s faction in the Yamina alliance. From his perspective, Bennett is already at the point of no return. At the moment, he needs to keep things cool with the party’s right flank – i.e. Smotrich.

Bennett has already tumbled rapidly from the heady air he breathed at the peak, in the area of 21 to 23 Knesset seats; about half of it has been cut away. Separation from the hilltop ultra-Orthodox nationalists is liable to bring him down to his familiar state of matter and dimensions – a bullied kid in the depressing single digit area.

Netanyahu, then, has Smotrich with absolute certainty, the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox with a high degree of certainty as well as Interior Minister Arye Dery, head of Shas, with total certainty. Dery is the only one who has hastened to accede to Netanyahu’s request to renew his vow of loyalty. No wonder. Shas voters are fans of Netanyahu. Dery is strong in the polls and apparently is even underrated in most of them. In order to ensure at least eight or nine Knesset seats, he has to keep making use of his Likudnik partner as the poster boy for the Shas campaign, overshadowing even the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid and Yamina Chairman Naftali Bennett at the Knesset, Jerusalem, in 2013. Credit: Michal Fattal

The Ashkenazis are more reserved. Lamwaker Moshe Gafni would rejoice, presumably, to see Netanyahu go home already. The relationship between the czar of the bloc and the Gur Hassidim and its representative in the cabinet, Housing and Construction Minister Yaakov Litzman, has known better days, to say the least.

For now, the Likud campaign will depict its leader exactly the way he is coming across in the polls: Gulliver in the land of the dwarves. He does not, at the moment, have any major power in the center or left to home in on, denigrate and frightening voters with. He will sweep away the mask of his disgraceful failures in managing the coronavirus crisis, his deception in the matter of the unity government and the fiasco of the damaging budget, and continue to be photographed beside every vaccination recipient with a round number.

In any case: The real campaign, the truly significant election race, isn’t happening now. That will happen the moment after the release of the exit poll results. The campaign to receive the mandate to form a government from the president and the work of putting together the next coalition, if that succeeds at all, will be far more fascinating than what we will be seeing up until March 23.

Not nice guys

”I know Ron. He is not likable and not lovable, “ says Avi Nissenkorn, until late this week the minister of justice. ”In fact,” he adds, “I’m not either.”

Gideon Sa'ar at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem, December 16, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

He preferred Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv who has just declared his candidacy in the Knesset election and the formation of the new party The Israelis, over leader of the opposition Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid). Nissenkorn says it felt like the right move. The prevailing analysis is that his considerations derived from his interests: Huldai is a contingent player.

He has one foot in city hall, the other on the national stage. If the cards don’t line up so that he is appointed to a senior cabinet position, he will prefer to remain in the kingdom of Tel Aviv and Nissenkorn will become head of The Israelis. The No. 1 Israeli. 

And this matter will be determined quickly. Huldai cannot serve simultaneously as a Knesset member and as a mayor. He will have to figure out where he is heading from the political map drawn from the samplings of the March 23 exit polls – to the cabinet table, or back to the 12th floor on Ibn Gvirol Street. Officially, he will have two weeks to think it over, until the 24th Knesset is sworn in.

I spoke with each of them separately, the day after the declaration on prime time TV. The difference between them is evident in nearly every sentence. I asked Huldai if eight or nine Knesset seats, which the first public polls have forecast for him, will suffice. He paused and groaned slightly before giving an unconvincing affirmative answer.

Nissenkorn, however, expressed total satisfaction with the opening figures even before I asked. However, if the truth be told, it is not good enough. In his speech, Huldai evinced authenticity and power and set forth a broad vision for a better Israel. The buzz in center-left circles was very positive, for the most part. It could have been expected that the day after the declaration, at the peak of the media hype, with maximal coverage on the three main channels, the numbers would be more impressive. 

Ron Huldai and Avi Nissenkorn announce the formation of their new party The Israelis, December 29, 2020.Credit: Nes Productions

Gideon Sa’ar, for example, opened with 15 or 16. For Huldai, eight and a half Knesset seats, on average, reflect a not very great leap, about 20 percent, from what the polls had predicted before his declaration. The addition of Nissenkorn, the only person in Kahol Lavan whose stock rose in the creeping, failed trade called a “unity government,” should have yielded juicier fruit for the pair of them, catapulting the new party into a double-digit figure. 

In Tel Aviv, The Israelis could well win big. The joint message from its two leaders is everything the city symbolizes. However, what has worked ever since 1998 for the popular chief of the city that never stops doesn’t translate necessarily into a position of significant influence in the national arena.

Why aren’t you resigning from the municipality, I asked Huldai. That would express more self-confidence. After 22 years, what do you have to lose? 

“I don’t want to leave the city in chaos for three months. When I was principal of the Gymnasia,” he replied, meaning Gymnasia Herzliya secondary school in Tel Aviv, “and I ran for mayor, I also left that position only at the end of the school year. I intend to run the municipality until the election. If I leave it in the hands of a deputy, it will not be run. They will be busy only with their own elections.”

They will use that against you, I said to him, they will say that the municipality is a default option, a security cushion. 

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai at a press briefing at Ichilov Hospital's vaccine center, Tel Aviv, December 31, 2020.Credit: Hadas Frosh

“I am aware of that,” he said, beginning to lose patience, “but look at the history. All the people who ran against me were Knesset members who hadn’t resigned.” The reference is to Nitzan Horowitz, now chairman of Meretz, and former Hadash lawmaker Dov Chenin. “Elkin ran for mayor of Jerusalem and didn’t resign from the cabinet. What’s the problem? Everyone is jumping up and down. What for? Why are you jumping up and down? They just want to butt heads.”

Just asking, I defended myself. Tell me, how do you define yourself? Left? Center-left?

“Drop it,” he replied with a charming growl. “There’s no right and left any more. It’s a myth. The moment the annexation dropped off the agenda, this story was over. This election is about economics. I am bringing with me management experience no one else has and executive ability no one else has.”

The conversation with Nissenkorn was more relaxed. He was careful not to say a bad word about Defense Minister Benny Gantz, head of the party he just left. “I could have taken five Knesset members from Kahol Lavan, and I did have five, and split off and formed a separate caucus and I’d have come with a huge dowry of millions of shekels,” he said. ”I didn’t do that because it would have been, as I see it, a dirty move. And not only have I not split off myself, I convinced the five who wanted to, and could also have quit without me, not to do it. I said to them, let’s not destroy what we’ve gone with for two years.”

What broke him, he says, was the appointment of former Labor Party lawmaker and cabinet minister Haim Ramon as Kahol Lavan’s representative in the talks with Netanyahu about postponing dissolution of the Knesset. “They take a former justice minister, who is constantly attacking the justice system, who defends Netanyahu in the matter of his indictments – and he is going to represent us?”

Chili Tropper and Benny Gantz at a press briefing, Kfar Maccabiah, May 21, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

What about the prevailing speculation? Huldai will resign after the election and you will replace him?

“I know that Ron is coming into politics for the long haul,” he said. Well, okay, a long haul in politics, especially in Israel, is a relative term. 

The immediate losers from the move by Huldai and Nissenkorn, in a simplistic analysis of the public opinion polls, are Meretz and Yesh Atid. However, there are still forces that might join Lapid, even Kahol Lavan (details to follow). When people talk about a glass ceiling, Lapid is saying in conversations, it is better to pay attention to the concrete floor. This has been keeping Yesh Atid since 2013 on a two-digit number, even at this complicated time.  A unification of Huldai, Meretz, Yesh Atid defector Ofer Shelah and Labor could save votes lost in the sinkhole of the Knesset threshold and create a significant leftist party, while positioning Lapid as the clear center-left leader versus Netanyahu, Sa’ar and Bennett.

Kahol Lavan survivors

Chances are there will no longer be a voting slip bearing the initials for Kahol Lavan on the shelf of ballot boxes in the coming election. Either Gantz and his colleagues will drop out of the race or they will join another slate. The man who led his party three times to achievements at the polling stations – winning 33 Knesset seats in the last round, is trailing behind Meretz, at the bottom of the electoral food chain, just a statistical error away from passing the threshold to win a single Knesset seat. Kahol Lavan has no life expectancy and in truth, there’s no longer any point to the party.

Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid at the Knesset, Jerusalem, December 2020.Credit: Dani Shem Tov / Knesset Spokesperson's Unit

Gantz’s angry speech this week fell on deaf ears in the camp. Anyone who has nevertheless been listening, is riposted with anger in the best case, scorn in the worst. He still has his defenders. Those who are talking about the brakes he put on Netanyahu. About his good intentions. At this stage, Gantz is reminiscent of another chief of staff who headed a party that pretended to be a ruling party. Shaul Mofaz of Kadima. Netanyahu lured both of them into his government. He transformed both their parties from vote-getting monsters into political corpses. And the same is happening now, as balloting time nears. The campaign that gleaned two miserable Knesset seats for Mofaz (as compared to 28 under Tzipi Livni) in the 2013 election was entirely the plaint of a leader whose status had greatly declined. The headline was: “Who are you to step on Shaul Mofaz.”

That, in a banana peel, is also the essence of Gantz’s admonishment speech this week. At the beginning of the week, Gantz held a meeting. The survivors remained. The mood was in the dumps. The option of running independently wasn’t really on the table. Culture and Sports Minister Chili Tropper, the person closest to Gantz, expressed a sober view: If we find ourselves with four or five Knesset seats before the slates are closed, we will have to either merge with another party or quit. We have been responsible and we will be responsible.

If we’re at six or seven seats, we will carry on.” Tropper said (and Gantz nodded) that they mustn’t rule out any option, on any side. It is necessary to examine linking up with Sa’ar and Bennett (on condition that the latter separate from Smotrich), and to send out feelers to Yair Lapid and Ron Huldai as well. In any case, any merger would be under the following conditions: Kahol Lavan comes into an alliance as a separate division; it keeps its independence on diplomatic and legal issues and it reserves the right to leave the consortium the day after the election and function as a separate caucus in the Knesset.

Kahol Lavan’s main asset at the moment are its many units of funding and a bit of kindly sympathy for its battered leader, who is looking like someone who has just emerged from a high rpm washing machine. That’s it. With such a thin wallet, the deal Gantz is planning with someone or other, looks completely unreasonable at the moment.

As far as I know, Tropper expressed Gantz’s opinion precisely. The meaning of a consortium with one side or another is not simple for the group of remainers. Social Equality Minister Meirav Cohen, for example, will find it hard to live with Bennett or Sa’ar. Others, who have rightist views, would feel that way with Huldai. “We mustn’t rule out anyone,” Tropper said, like a person fleeing from the flames who doesn’t insist on determining the identity of the firefighter who will come to his rescue. 

Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi were the last IDF chiefs to go into politics. The former is on the skids, the second is already turning his equipment in to the quartermaster on his way back to civilian life.

There is talk about the aspirations of current IDF chief Aviv Kochavi but until such time as he becomes politically relevant, there aren’t any takers. Gadi Eisenkot sniffed this, apparently. It must be said to his credit that he didn’t wait, so as not to make his suitors miserable. He could have dragged it out for another week or two. “Enjoyed” the business. But he is suffering from it. He is a man of integrity. Maybe Sa’ar’s decision to make ex-Likud lawmaker Yifat Shasha-Biton and Zeev Elkin his deputies sent him a signal that he is less desired. He doesn’t go for big money and he cares a lot about the country. Who knows – maybe in his cold calculations he realizes that the likelihood of a fifth election is greater than it seems. Maybe it will be better to throw his hat in the ring then, and not now.

However, another retired lieutenant general, Ashkenazi, has revealed himself as spoiled and impatient. The prom king so assiduously courted in his day, before Eisenkot, came along to provide added value. Who knew that this added value would end up in Netanyahu’s tight pocket. Now he is leaving. His resignation is about as spoiled as his sitting on the fence for years. Moving to another party as a number two would not be something he would consider. Until the very last minute the foreign minister – according to people in the know – thought that Gantz would acknowledge his failure and hand the party over to him. That didn’t happen. At least this separation was polite, in contrast to the quarrels and breakups to which they have become accustomed to in Kahol Lavan – in the past and in the present.

Wild card Livni

Ephraim Kishon, the great playwright, screenwriter and author, once wrote a skit about an old peddler who trudges around from apartment house to apartment house. He knocks on doors, offering razor blades. No one buys from him.

One day, a tenant takes pity on him. Give me five packets, he asks. I don’t have any, the peddler replies sadly. Then why are you bothering, the tenant wonders. Nobody wants to buy from me,  the peddler grumbles, so why should I drag myself around with all that weight?

For some reason I was reminded of Amir Peretz this week. Like that peddler, he’s wandering among politicians of both sexes, activists and pensioners, offering them the Labor Party. For free. Just say yes and he adds a few bonuses like the party tribunal and a few desolate branches overgrown with weeds. But all doors are being slammed in his face.

Peretz, who with great nobility is relinquishing the chairmanship of the party he destroyed, tried to interest Nissenkorn. Such an option never occurred to Nissenkorn. Peretz also went to Tzipi Livni and showed her a poll indicating that the party headed by her would win eight Knesset seats. She was flattered but rejected the offer outright.

Peretz isn’t the first; the Labor chairman before him, Avi Gabbay, offered the party on a golden platter to Ashkenazi, and after him, to Gantz. The two turned up their noses and refused politely. No matter how it’s offered and no matter to whom, it will be rejected. Nobody wants to taste a product past its sell-by date and get food poisoning.

Back to Livni. Peretz’s gesture wasn’t the most bizarre event she has experienced recently. There’s a new movement called the Democrats. It’s based on the protest movement outside the prime minister’s residence, including academics and businesspeople. The movement’s heads want to run for the Knesset.

So recently they contacted Livni and former Meretz chief Zehava Galon – separately, without each knowing about the other – and asked them to run in the primary for party chief. This will make a big noise, the hopefuls said: two prominent women who have led parties on the left running against each other. It’s a good thing they didn’t ask them to get into a mud pit and wrestle.

Both women politely refused. Livni showed responsibility in the past when she decided that her Hatnuah party wouldn’t run in the March 2019 election so as not to throw precious votes in the trash. Is that what we need, she said, another split? In the past two years, Galon has rejected more-dignified proposals, mainly so as not to be the person who signed Meretz’s death warrant.

Apart from this anecdote, Livni is being courted by more-serious politicians. Lapid is offering her the second spot on his ticket. Huldai also made an offer, but now that slot has been taken by Nissenkorn.

They’re coming to her bearing gifts: opinion polls. In most she adds between two and three Knesset seats. She’s one of the few public figures outside the current political lineup who has an electorate somewhere out there. So does Galon, and so does Shelly Yacimovich, the radio and TV journalist and former Labor chief.

Livni maintains a power base among the public, even though she doesn’t give interviews. Before the outbreak of the pandemic she was hardly ever in the country. She did countless lectures abroad and spent a stretch at Harvard. All in all, she didn’t suffer. She isn’t suffering now either, and she has no uncontrollable urge to return.

True, she equals prestige, positioning and even Knesset seats. The question she’s examining is where they’re coming from. If she takes a seat from Meretz, three quarters of a seat from Kahol Lavan, a half from the remnants of the Labor Party and another from Yesh Atid and Huldai, there’s no point in a comeback. It’s shuffling the cards again, but only on one side of the deck.

But if they prove to her that she’s producing new voters, let’s say people who hadn’t been thinking about voting, or those who in despair are leaning toward supporting Sa’ar, Bennett or Avigdor Lieberman – that is, if it’s within her power to enlarge the bloc – that’s a different opera. And the opera, as everyone knows, isn't over until a certain lady sings.